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WORLD CUP USA '94 : Threats Not Rare, but Deaths Are : Violence: Murder of Escobar goes against the norm, but soccer not only sport touched by tragedy.

July 03, 1994|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Saturday murder of Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar is virtually without precedent in modern sports history.

By all accounts, Escobar was murdered by Colombians infuriated that he had accidentally scored a goal for the United States on June 22 in a World Cup match that resulted in a 2-1 U.S. victory.

Later, Colombia, a pre-World Cup favorite, was eliminated.

Throughout the 20th Century, athletes have often been threatened with death, but rare is the case in which an athlete has been murdered for reasons directly related to athletic performance.

But it isn't rare for soccer to be the cause of people dying.

This is a sport that once sparked a war between Honduras and El Salvador, wherein thousands died.

Sports officials have often been the target of misdirected sports passions. In fact, Escobar's murder is only the most recent in a series of chilling incidents involving Colombian soccer.

--In 1988, referee Armando Perez was kidnaped for 24 hours and told officials who made "wrong decisions" in championship playoffs would be killed.

--In 1989, soccer referee Alvaro Ortega was killed by two men after calling a match in Medellin. Later, an anonymous caller said he and his bosses "had lost a lot of money" as a result of Ortega's calls.

--In January, 1990, German Gomez Garcia, president of Bogota's Millionarios club, was driving when he was shot and wounded by two passing gunmen on a motorcycle.

--In 1983, Colombia's justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, claimed several prominent Colombian teams were run by drug traffickers. A few months later, he was assassinated. The government blamed drug barons.

Most of the violence associated with Colombian soccer is believed related to drug and gambling cartels.

U.S. sports haven't been entirely immune from either.

In the famed "Black Sox" scandal, Chicago White Sox pitcher Claude (Lefty) Williams testified he threw a game in the 1919 World Series because gamblers had threatened to murder his wife if he didn't.

Then there's simple madness, which isn't confined to geopolitical boundaries.

In 1993, during a tennis match at Hamburg, Germany, a man came out of the stands and plunged a serrated knife into the back of Monica Seles, ranked No. 1 in the world at the time.

The Seles case brought into question athletes' security at sports venues, and it chilled athletes in all sports.

"Does this mean I should no longer approach a group of people asking for my autograph?" said one prominent athlete, in the Seles case aftermath.

In America, threats have been race-related.

Black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was so routinely threatened with death during his championship reign (1908-1915), he eventually came to ignore them.

The same happened to Hank Aaron in the 1970s, as he came closer to Babe Ruth's career home run record . . . and with Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

Even youth baseball isn't exempt from violence.

In 1993, Antonio Messina, 19, from San Lorenzo, Calif., drew a 12-year sentence for killing a teen-age spectator with a bat, after the spectator had heckled him during a game.

In 1991, an East St. Louis, Ill., Little League coach, infuriated when an umpire called a 9-year-old out at the plate, fired several shots at the umpire but missed.

Often in America's sports history, the passions of the playing field erupted after games, in neighborhood bars.

In the late 1930s, a Brooklyn postal worker named Robert Joyce was drinking in a bar, trying to drown the sorrows of a one-sided defeat he had just seen his Dodgers take against their hated rivals, the New York Giants.

He found himself surrounded by Giants fans, who taunted him. Joyce left, but returned with two revolvers and shot two of his tormentors, killing one of them.

Two 1970s Southern California boxing murders are still unsolved.

--Manager Howie Steindler, 72, was kidnaped in front of his Encino home in 1977, and his body was later found on the back seat of his car, parked on a Ventura Freeway off-ramp.

--In 1979, agent Vic Weiss, 51, was found dead in the back seat of his car, which was parked in a North Hollywood hotel parking structure. His hands were bound and he had been shot in the head.

Weiss had been last seen alive days before at a Beverly Hills meeting with Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Buss, when Buss was negotiating to buy the Lakers from Cooke.

Athletes have often been swept up in the fortunes of regional hatreds, politics and even war.

Early in the morning of Sept. 5, 1972, Arab commandos disguised as athletes slipped into the Munich Olympic athletes' village.

They killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team at the outset of a 23-hour hostage drama. The commandos, demanding the release of 200 Israeli-held commandos, all perished with nine more Israeli athletes in an airport gun battle.

In 1980, 19 Afghan field hockey players were abducted and an unknown number were later killed by rebel bandits as the team was returning by bus from a match in the Soviet Union.

The incident was linked with U.S. President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Then there's the worst-ever case of soccer violence: The 1969 El Salvador-Honduras war.

There were violent clashes involving fans after the neighboring countries met in two World Cup qualifying matches.

El Salvador declared a state of siege and called up reservists. The Honduran government accused El Salvador of "the rape of our women, insults, automobiles destroyed and mocking the Honduran flag."

Diplomatic relations were severed and border clashes followed.

Several thousand people died in the weeklong war, which wasn't really resolved until 1992, when the International Court of Justice settled border disputes between the two nations.

*

Times researcher William Holmes contributed to this story.

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